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TOK TOK TOK's Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child


 

Reviewed by Kalamu ya Salaam of Kalamu.com

 

It is one thing to make something out of nothing, but it’s a black thing to make beautiful music out of troubles, and for most of us there is no greater trouble than being a motherless child. 

Mahalia Jackson is widely known as the world’s greatest gospel singer but although her iconic musical status is unassailable, the current reality is that more people have “heard of” her than have actually “listened to” her.

 

Moreover, people assume they know what she will sound like because they know what gospel sounds like.

 

But Mahalia Jackson was not only the greatest, she was also a musical rebel who radically changed 20th century vocal music in America. Mahalia’s version illustrates the revolutionary aspects of her approach.

 Whereas “Motherless Child” is generally accepted as a Negro spiritual, “Summertime” from George Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, is completely outside of the religious repertoire.

What is incredible about Mahalia is that she not only sang in a style influenced by the jazz of her hometown of New Orleans, she also sang popular music and jazz, even going so far as to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival and to record with jazz musicians.

 

Whereas there is nothing particularly noteworthy about that today, back in Mahalia’s day it was considered one short step from blasphemy, yet, Mahalia, gospel’s greatest, was comfortable singing jazz in public.

Beyond the radicalness of her repertoire choices, this is also a radical treatment in melding the two very dissimilar songs into a seamless whole. Notice that Mahalia not only sings “Summertime,” she transforms it to fit her reality, thus, the line “your daddy’s rich / and your mama’s good looking” becomes “your daddy ain’t rich / and your ma is good looking,” thereby excluding the possibility of paternal wealth.

 

Then, far beyond that change, Mahalia goes on to sing “Motherless Child” as though it was a “Summertime” verse. Finally, Mahalia hums a verse of “Motherless Child” in her stunningly beautiful voice. Overall it’s both a fascinating study in musical transformation, and a gripping vocal performance.
 
Next, jazz pianist Ray Bryant gives a solo reading from a 1977 concert at the Montreaux Jazz Festival. Bryant became a big name in popular music with a dance-craze number, "Madison Time” (1959). Here Bryant demonstrates the depth and breath of his jazz piano knowledge and ability.

 

His sophisticated sonic investigation opens with modern chording a la McCoy Tyner and Ahmad Jamal before going into some deft left-hand work worthy of the great Art Tatum. Hints of stride offer exciting texture to the improvisation, and as is evident from the applause, the audience thoroughly enjoyed Bryant’s offering.
 
The all-female a capella group, Sweet Honey In The Rock, follow with a version that stylistically hues close to the spiritual tradition but which mixes the gospel quartet style with the choral sound of the spirituals.

 

 

Note in particular the lead voice call and the group response. Also of deep interest is the booming bass line characteristic of the gospel quartet tratdition. Sweet Honey is awesome.

Next Ray Barretto, who died in February 2006, offers the most radical treatment of all. Barretto’s version is in a Latin jazz mode. The base of the song is an Afro-Cuban rhythm sounded on a cowbell, but beyond the rhythm, both the melody and the harmony are transformed and used as a springboard for stirring solos from trumpeter Joe Magnerelli and alto saxophonist Myron Walden, who is particularly fiery.

This version goes far, far beyond the basic sadness of the song to give us glimpses of the conditions that might lead someone to feel motherless.
 
“Mr. Please-Come-Home-For-Christmas” Charles Brown follows with a blues treatment that is mournful but not depressing, indeed it is almost uplifting in its affirmation that it is only sometimes that Mr. Brown feels down. Brown also alters the song structure to deliver his profound reading that manages to be both bluesy and almost religious in tone.
 
Vocalist Jimmy Scott is known for his unusually high-pitched voice, the result of a rare disease that permanently suppresses normal hormonal developments.

 

Although Scott’s female-sounding voice is an acquired timbre not to everyone’s taste, Jimmy Scott is truly effective in his presentation of the lyrics, relying as much on his timing and phrasing as on the sound of his voice.

 

His pace is as deliberate as a dead man walking to his execution. With it’s dramatic string accompaniment, the arrangement could easily have degenerated into melodrama, but Scott soars above almost as if uttering his last words as he steps off to meet his maker.
 
Archie Shepp, who is known primarily as a tenor saxophonist, offers a sterling soprano rendition in duet with pianist Horace Parlan. Shepp’s silvery soprano is both beautiful and bittersweet.

 

His solo is meditation music; some of the improvised lines sail, swoop and flutter like a kite floating on a gentle breeze that rises and falls. Shepp investigates both the top and the bottom of his horn, the high notes piercing but full, the low notes almost a fulsome growl.

 

This is an exemplary jazz rendition, full of exploratory improvisation, some of it subtle, others of it outright alterations, all of it sensitively rendered.
 

At the end of this roundup, I’m most moved by Tok Tok Tok’s almost motionless utterances. Tokunbo Akinro’s quiet, supple singing is so absolutely lonely, so truly lonely, that she sounds like someone who can’t cry anymore because they are all cried out.

 

This is a minimalist exploration, the journey begins and ends with her sitting alone, unmoving at the crossroads. And then Morten’s tenor slides in with a long train whistle moan.
 
Her partner, Morten Klein is near perfect. His solo is a movie soundtrack for loneliness, walking down a long, winding road to nowhere.

The closing chorus and half are sublime. First Tokunbo is paradoxically both defiant and affirmative. She closes out on the verge of existential despair—I will keep going, but I know it is useless.

 

And then she ends on the upbeat, leaving us waiting for more, but there is no more. When you are a motherless child, the end often comes well before you expect or want it to arrive.

Thankfully, most of us are not motherless, and therefore these songs are marvels of exploration for us to enjoy rather than autobiographical tracts mapping the trajectory of our sadness. Happy Mother’s Day.

With thanks to www.kalamu.com/bol where this piece was originally posted.

 

Kalamu ya Salaam is a New Orleans writer and filmmaker. He is also the founder of Nommo Literary Society - a Black writers workshop. 

 

Please e-mail comments to comments@thenewblackmagazine.com 

 

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